Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as Inspiration for Yggdrasill “Winter Nights” Gaming

136F0B9A-AEA2-4F0B-8C1B-63301801108CMy Yggdrasill campaign is underway again. It was interrupted by one session of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and by one player on hiatus (during which we played Monolith’s Conan board game). As I suggested last post, I attempted to adapt and modify traditional OSR material from Frog God Games — to demoralizing effect. I learned that OSR material (for me) doesn’t “translate” all that well to the specific vibe Yggdrasill seeks to emulate and that I’m not all that good at running adventures that I haven’t written myself.

I actually was quite ambitious. I had sent out hooks that could have taken the PCs in two different directions. One would have made use of the “official campaign” beginning in the Yggdrasill core book. The other was stuff adapted from Frog God’s Stoneheart Valley — a direction I vastly preferred the PCs take, and they did. But from there it floundered. I was experiencing the age old difficulty with any roleplaying game: my players (obviously) wanted to be in charge of their own characters’ choices and determinations. But, at the same time, as players, they are eminently happier and more entertained if I shoehorn (railroad) them into an exciting adventure.

Therefore I determined to try something specifically episodic and of my own invention. I began an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Yggdrasill.

It’s been going alright, I guess. My players talk about how much fun Beowulf was (though many experiences with rpgs become more entertaining through the recollections and retellings of past exploits). As a player pointed out to me, though, my work with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more of an “inspiration” rather than an outright “adaptation.” Add to this that I’ve added “sandboxy” elements and it is indeed a different animal.

We are mastering the system, though. I have innovated “Viking band” mechanics and then discarded them (for now) as being too complicating. I have introduced “Luck points” that any of us have yet to use. Action was slowed by a few attempts, on my part, to have players specify what happened during “downtime” that promptly became the play session. It had become difficult to wedge at least one satisfying combat encounter into a night’s session, dealing with the age old paradox of characters, obviously, seeking resolutions to problems outside of physical conflict while the players hungered for some good ol’ hack and slash.

I’ve got my players in Alfheim, now, after what felt to me like some tedium. You need your players to do things on their own, and yet, given the structure of the adventure, obviously they will find their way to Alfland. If not, there would be no adventure. So we are there now. Our berserker got royally ripped up by an alf defending a bridge, and now they have retreated to heal their wounds, regain their furor, and (this time) probably attack the alf en masse. In knightly fashion, they had initially agreed to fight the alf one at a time. The berserker went first and got destroyed.

I’m also trying to make myself better at improv. I will try to remember to draw a rune in response to any unanticipated player question. I also intend to expedite future downtime by drawing one rune per PC and narrating from there. If this rune matches one of their Fate runes, the interpretation of downtime events should be particularly interesting.

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Too Much Material for Just Twice a Month!

IMG_0049I offered four tables at Coulee Con, and three “fired” (as I learned one says about a game that has enough people show up to actually run). Attendance at my first two Swords & Wizardry games was pretty good. I especially enjoyed the second one. This probably was because, after running so much Yggdrasill in my home game, a first session had got me back into the rhythm of refereeing an OSR game. This also was because the second game was attended by two brand new players who seemed really receptive to the experience.

Yggdrasill went very well. Only one gamer showed, precisely. But I also count another attendee who arrived an hour late, just in time for the actual game. It had taken this long to get to the session because the early player was interested in simply hearing about the game system. The actual session, because of time, involved only the Grendel encounter. The players tried some innovative tactics. Not all of them worked. I had fun using Grendel to throw characters across the hall. The gamers enjoyed the system well enough that when the second player learned I was scheduled for more Swords & Wizardry the following day, he asked if I would run Yggdrasill instead!

Therefore I’m emboldened to offer a full schedule of Yggdrasill next year. I had offered Swords & Wizardry for the newbies and families, but with the exception of the couple that I already mentioned, those who played my Swords & Wizardry games were playing just because they were looking for Dungeons & Dragons. And so it was: nothing really new or interesting, just low-level characters encountering your usual orcs or goblins in a mini-dungeon. Let me re-approach my point: most of my gamers regularly played D&D. They were playing my game not for the experience of the system or for the particular adventure I was offering but because they were most interested in playing D&D at the moment, and, at a small con with a limited number of rpg offerings, I happened to be offering it then.

So I’m back from Coulee Con and intent in my purpose. It should be interesting to see what content I manage to generate over the upcoming year. As I’ve already said, I intend to run the Yggdrasill Official Campaign. But judging by my players’ gaming styles, it’s unlikely they’ll cleave that tightly to the “plan.” I also have amassed a wealth of Norse-themed gaming material over the years (and all sorts of gaming accessories not necessarily Norse-themed, as well, but more of that in a moment), both rpg systems and accessories and adventures. Being such a Swords & Wizardry supporter, I had purchased the big book The Northlands Saga Complete from the Frog God Games booth at Gamehole Con last year. I’ve been steadily reading through it. I likewise have The Nine Worlds Saga from Troll Lord Games, designed to be played with its Codex Nordica accessory to Norse-themed gaming with a traditional game set. I just read through “Beyond the Ice-Fall” from Raven God Games, an adventure I should be able to slip in just about anywhere, and there are two full scenarios that I need to read in Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland. I intend to read through and adapt all of this to Yggdrasill, and playing through it should be an epic undertaking spanning multiple years.

As readers have heard from me before, at the same time, though, I have all these other games and accessories. There are three, maybe four, game systems that I really would like time to explore. These are Yggdrasill (obviously), Modiphius’s Conan, The One Ring, and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

And here’s what else: I own SO MUCH material for high fantasy and OSR games, all of which should fit neatly into Hyperborea, that I would love, also, in addition to Yggdrasill and its “unity of Norse vision,” to run an epic OSR campaign as a huge sandbox containing all of my materials. Hyperborea could be a good campaign world, the chassis for all the other supplements.

And here’s a most ambitious idea: what if my Yggdrasill PCs undertake a long adventure in Alfheim? When they reenter Midgard, time naturally has sped far into the future (or am I getting that backwards?). Talanian’s world of Hyperborea is set in the far future. What if I ran a crazy OSR sandbox using the Yggdrasill game system? No one would know what to expect!

And if it’s going to take years to get through all my proper Norse material…

Yggdrasill Invades Keltia

KeltiaSometime ago I participated in a Bundle of Holding drive concerning Cubicle 7’s translated game products. I went in for the first tier alone, because the majority of the Bonus Collection contained the entirety of the Yggdrasill line which I already owned. I was interested in Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg, however, because of an idea I had to run Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a game. What I missed out on by avoiding the Bonus Collection was the only existing English-language supplement to Keltia, Avalon. For some reason, it wasn’t till recently when I sat down with Keltia and read it in its entirety.

Of immediate use to Yggdrasill gamers is what Keltia has to say about its relation to its progenitor. Keltia shares the Yggdrasill game system, with some modifications that it details in an appendix. But I sense that there might be even more changes than what are specified therein. The Yggdrasill player benefits from a close reading of the entire text, including the rules section. Perhaps because of the fresh format, rules seem clarified. And I believe that there are some additions (a bonus to damage from a head butt as given in the weapons chart, for example, or weather modifications on movement).

This might be an error, but I noticed there still are some copies for sale on Amazon. I’m testing the waters and fishing for one: I ordered a copy, just to have a second physical rules manual at the table. And it of course would be more thematically appropriate to have available to the group if I ever were to run that Gawain game. But it has been a few days now and the book has not shipped. I suspect that Amazon will learn that they need to update their files, that they might no longer have the authority to sell such a thing.

The campaign material is a pleasure to read, in tone and content reminding me very much of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. As with the “nations” of Yggdrasill, the well-known knights and nobles of legend have been rearranged and occluded so that GMs and players should feel empowered to explore and create their own Arthurian canons. Granted, I would have found most of this entirely unnecessary if I hadn’t recently experienced myself using the campaign materials in Yggdrasill as background for even my Beowulf campaign! One would think Beowulf would provide all that is required. I guess it does, but I appreciated what the backdrop of Halfdan, Frodi and jarl Regin did as far as deepening the story–at least for campaign play.

As I might have mentioned in a previous post, my Yggdrasill players are interested in exploring the official campaign, and I’m willing to run this for them. However, as was pointed out in my favorite review, large portions of at least the introductory adventure seem really boring, particularly the second movement, which appears to be entirely subsumed in investigation and politicking that is unlikely to interest any player. A new experience for me will be the experience of adapting this material for use at my particular table.

If I anticipate the need to revise this Yggdrasill material, I expect it will be downright essential were I ever to run the introductory “adventure” as presented in Keltia. I imagine that the game designers test out their material on someone, and if the Keltia play test was well received, I would value the opportunity to get a sense of the culture of that gaming group. The reason is because the adventure appears to ignore many pieces of advice or guidelines that GMs have received over the years.

The pieces of advice that most prominently spring to mind are three: players tend to enjoy physical conflicts, ideally in the form of combats; players aren’t very good at internalizing or comprehending a large amount of information; and players need to be the heroes — or the main point — of the story or adventure. The problems with the Keltia scenario are 1. There are only two conflicts, maybe just one. There are some bandits that need to be chased away from a princess at the beginning of the adventure. And there are some guards or spies that perhaps must be engaged at the end of the adventure (ideally, though, the PCs and the one whom they have in their charge at that time should sneak by these people. 2. There is a lot of information in this adventure, and it’s difficult to determine how any of it really is relevant. The heart of the adventure is a council in which Arthur is proclaimed the new High King of Ynys Prydein. The adventure goes to great length to explain just where a multitude of noble characters are seated, who they are, to whom they are related, what their interests are, and just what their seating says about their power and positions. Exhausting! I’m not sure what player can comprehend it all — especially after getting through the already formidable obstacle of the Gaelic/Welsh names — much less care! To add to this, the adventure provides a chart of Perception STs and what PCs will recognize about the NPCs based on NPC reactions to a number of things that are said at the council. And this brings up a tangential and foregone objection: this scene is very much railroaded. The PCs aren’t at the council to do anything. They are there as spectators only. Arthur is going to be proclaimed High King, and some nobles are going to be angry about it. That’s it. 3. This third point has already been begun. The PCs are not the point of the adventure: Arthur is. The PCs have no further role other than to witness Arthur’s ascension to High King and then to protect him and smuggle him out of the Caer and away from his enemies. The adventure is open about how this is a “railroad” and that players must either “buy in” or be tricked into this scenario or that there is no adventure; the campaign is already over. This is at odds with the only way I know how to run a game: set up the scenario, the environment, the factors, the powers at play, and see what happens. Because, as many GMs other than me have said, you never can predict what a player will do.

So, even though I’m not going to be running this official Keltia adventure anytime soon, I am encountering similar formulations in the proposed Yggdrasill material. The experiment for me will be to adapt the “adventures” into “starting scenarios” and “see what happens.” Anyone familiar with the Yggdrasill official campaign might be interested in what I discover.

The Surprising Tenacity of Yggdrasill

Some time ago I wrote for Blackgate magazine that GMs must be very careful about what games they introduce to new rpg players, because (and I especially liked this image) players will chew into a system and live there like termites. I expressed this because of all the other games that I was buying and wanted to play while my players remained perfectly (and perhaps stubbornly) content with Yggdrasill. And lately I’ve come to wonder if I, too, need not run anything else for a long, long time.

I ran Swords & Wizardry for a few murderous sessions, then was perfectly happy to let a friend run an AD&D 1e game instead. I alternate, week by week, my Yggdrasill game with his. I belatedly helped Kickstart Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of and backed Jeffrey Talanian’s Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (as of this date expected to ship in October). And, after reflecting on how deeply meaningful Tolkien has been for my entire life, and remembering how formative MERP was on my younger gaming self, I ordered the hardback of The One Ring. I’ve been reading reams of stuff that Modiphius has been loading into my backerkit during this First Wave of Conan merchandise, and slowly I have moved from anticipation for running the 2d20 system, from envy for those who are already playing it, to casual indifference as I turn, again and again, to this somewhat odd, now-out-of-print game called Yggdrasill.

I think I’ve determined three reasons why Yggdrasill just won’t let me go. The first is my players. They genuinely like the game. They also like making sums out of large numbers. They don’t mind mechanical wonkiness. Yggdrasill is not the cleanest, most streamlined game out there. Read this hilarious review about the mechanical imperfections (and ignore the bit about how the game ignores the historical, cultural aspersions cast on males who practice sorcery — it doesn’t!). What is described in this review is very close to the experience we have at the table. And we like it. I’ve started to bring cheap calculators to the table, scratch pads upon which to write every number we generate just in case we need it for a secondary action or to refer to how much we exceeded a success threshold. I now hand players glass beads to keep track of weapon and armour damage. We still don’t use combat Feats all that often. And yet I like it. And I still find the mechanics inspiring and creative enough that I continue to tinker with them. I continue to write new things for this rules set.

The things I like about the game aren’t radically different from many other systems. My players like the exploding dice. Other games, of course, use exploding dice. It’s perhaps not necessary to explain what we like about this feature: most probabilities can be anticipated, unless a die explodes, and especially when an exploding die explodes (and then even explodes again?). This allows a person of nearly every power level to sometimes, unexpectedly, land a particularly vicious blow or achieve a spectacular result.

Other mechanical features seem more nuanced. Let’s start with the Characteristics. We all know these. I think the six of them in D&D typically are called Attributes. It’s slightly interesting to compare how many Characteristics, Attributes, or whatever other synonym various games use to determine what these say about the “head space” or the priorities of the game designers. What qualities are left out, for example, or what qualities are included? What is the ordering of the qualities? I happened to notice that the ordering of Attributes in D&D changed from AD&D to 3rd ed, clearly a progression from the core stats of the Fighter, Magic-user, Cleric, Thief archetypes being listed first to the privileging of all stats related to the body and then all of those related to the mind or soul.

Yggdrasill makes use of nine stats! This is the largest number of core stats that I’ve seen in a game, and I’d be curious if there is any other game out there that uses this many or more. I must emphasize that I’m talking about “core stats” and not the various derived stats that many games use — and Yggdrasill uses a fair share of these, as well. Of course, the number nine in a Norse-themed setting is poetical, a powerful number that, at the very least, stands for the Nine Worlds clustered around the roots of the World Tree Yggdrasill, which is the title of the game, after all!

These nine stats also are conveniently organized into three macro-stats — Body, Mind, and Soul. It would be tedious, I suppose, for me to elaborate on how powerfully a game’s mechanics have spoken to my meditative life — I truly believe that my absorption with this system has caused me to pray and exercise more, because I realized that I was quite developed in the Mind but heroically lacking in the Body and in the Soul. But a more relatable observation is how versatile these nine Characteristics are in gameplay.

In OSR styles of play, a lot is supposed to be contingent not so much on what a PC is doing but on how that character is doing it. This allows the player to convince the GM to allow the resolution to occur or allow, at the very least, a bonus of some kind on a roll. The nine Characteristics in Yggdrasill provides players some guidance and inspiration, allows them to play to their characters’ strengths. As an example, a character might be searching for tracks in a forest glen. The character might use her Perception, obviously, or the character might use his Instinct (to become aware of her surroundings, to guess or “feel” where a person passed recently), or the character might use his Intelligence to deduct where the creature might have walked through the glade, ideally with some knowledge of the creature. Of course, Perception is the most applicable here, but this gives some versatility and depth to different kinds of characters and how they might do things. Even in combat the game makes use of Characteristics beyond the usual contenders of Strength and Agility. These approaches to combat provide further demonstrations of this kind of application.

The third reason that I keep coming back to this game is because of its content. I keep reading Viking Age literature, and it’s no surprise that this keeps me constantly in the spirit to run this game. When I was excited for Conan, I was reading a lot of Conan and found adventure-worthy content in nearly every thing I read, including non-Conan material! Now, as I finish The Longships and Gunnar’s Daughter and A Gathering of Ravens, I’m looking for passages that I can mechanize and drop into my campaign.

My Norse-related reading is not only novels and histories but other game systems and settings. Recently, finally, Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland reduced in price during a July sale on DriveThruRPG. Now I understand why it’s one of the more expensive supplements, and I’ve been having fun pondering what elements I can steal and adapt for Yggdrasill. I still have to give Sagas of the Icelanders (a PbtA game) a closer read, and Troll Lord publishes a fairly inexpensive adventure path to accompany its Codex Nordica that should make interesting reading as soon as I feel the spirit. Even reading Modiphius’s Conan the Barbarian got me energized for Yggdrasill — it was difficult to get excited about running Conan adventures set in the Hyborian North while I’m running essentially that already! With this wealth of material and inspiration, I should be gaming with Yggdrasill for a long, long time.

Beowulf Playtest Complete!

IMG_0037Well, I completed my playtest for the Beowulf game using the Yggdrasill system. A quick note: since Cubicle 7 has let go of the license on this game, and since the game now is officially out of print, I see the price of the hardcover has been gouged on Amazon from around $50 to $250. I hope those sellers don’t get what they’re asking! I hope that Le 7eme Cercle republishes the game, perhaps with a new translation, and that those who missed out on it this time around are able to enjoy yet a better edition. One unfortunate gamer reported on the Cubicle 7 forums that his/her Yggdrasill record in his/her DriveThruRPG wishlist suddenly vanished. Now this person would be willing to purchase the entire line if only given the chance. I myself have wished that I hadn’t bought the entire line at full price but had been lucky enough to find this game while the Humble Bundle drive was going on! Argh! Oh, well. I guess I was able to directly support the game while it lasted.

Not unexpectedly, the Beowulf playtest was a bit wonky, but overall I think it worked out alright. This “wonkiness” was the reason why I initially had given up using Yggdrasill to make a con game and instead had devised my own Old Norse Old School Roleplaying system. It was much easier to grasp the power structures of the simulation using the lingua franca of the gaming community. But as you might recall, being perfectly satisfied with a D&D game being run by a friend of mine, I didn’t want to run yet more D&D with my home group, so instead went back to Yggdrasill when it came time to retell Beowulf. (Aside: my group has interest in playing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea when I get the hardcopy of the second edition expected to ship this October; perhaps that game is sufficiently different enough from D&D — at least in setting — to justify two of those games being run.)

In regards to the wonkiness of Yggdrasill, one of my players summed up the issues with Yggdrasill perfectly. At first glance, the core mechanic of the game is quite simple. Roll pools of d10s attributed to your Characteristics for any kind of skill test, add any relevant Skill if applicable, beat a Difficulty threshold. But, once you start manipulating this core mechanic in any appreciable way, as the game does, very quickly you are dealing with large numbers and math problems complex enough to slow down the simulation. Are you performing a Feat? Well, you have to take a negative modifier to your Test based on the level of the Feat — and, while you’re at it, are you sure the Feat’s effect is worth the penalty that otherwise might be just straight damage to your target resulting from an excess value required to make your test? And some Feats and specific attacks require you subtract or add your Characteristic value. And dice explode on tens, so sometimes the rolls are wildly (and lethally) successful, and sometimes they are pathetic. And sometimes, for some game applications, tens just don’t explode. And there are plenty of gaps and openings for interpretation for this rules set, either by design, by overlooked omission, or through ambiguities in the language translation to make this game (as I have described it in a different place) “old school” in flavor (as long as we focus on a definition of the old school that few groups of gamers played the same game the same way).

Anyway, thanks to this playtest I think I have the Beowulf game reduced to manageable parameters. Contrary to what I told Gaming and BS, I have generated pregens. The pregens might be a bit statistically powerful, whereas the characters in my homegame had a number of toys to aid them (i.e., buckets of healing unguents). When I initially drafted the adventure, I included a number of encounters and possibilities that simply have to be cut for a time allotment of 4-6 hours, and I believe this benefits the game, because it reduces the action and story down to (just about) the central elements in the poem. I think the session will be good fun, should anyone sign up, even if it might not make more game adherents–an ideal one-shot experience for a con. And potential consumers no longer are able to buy the game anyway (for anything less than $250, that is!).

Epilogue to a TPK: What Happens to the Hireling?

For the third time that night, still standing upright, Dollen jerked awake. The donkey again was stamping its hooves and emitting that low, unearthly whine. That sound made Dollen’s beard stand out like a weather rod. The night had grown yet colder, and now flurries were melting on Dollen’s cheeks. “There there,” the dwarf said, placing an attempt at a soothing hand on the donkey’s flank. “Your owners will be back soon, and then we’ll be out for a mite to drink.”

Yes, a drink. At this time on any other night Dollen would be in Rok’s Tavern hoping for beer charity from the more prosperous denizens of Black Rock. He had hoped tonight to be paying back his friends and making new ones with the fifteen gold this odd band of adventurers had promised him for one night’s service — yes, the onerous service of watching the cart and donkey. Cart Watcher, they had called him, and left him here with a new mace that they had purchased for no other reason than that he had said he wanted it and because he was expected to die while protecting the cart and donkey. But now the work wasn’t feeling as posh as it first had seemed. The valley below him was dark, so dark he believed he could see heat traces in whatever forest animals might now be hunting within those branches. It seemed unlikely, now, that the band would be making the trip back to Black Rock this night, once his employers came out of that hole.

Grunting, he went back into the old ruined Guild Hall, temporarily sheltered from the biting wind. If his employers’ absence kept up, he supposed, he should untether the animal and lead it in here. But he didn’t want to make too many decisions on his own. An odd group, they were. Scattering gold in their wakes as if they were kings. He stood at the top of the stairway again and peered down into its inky depths. Nothing. The pitch smell of his employers’ torches, by this time, had faded to the smell of a cold forge. He strained his ears. Did he hear something? Perhaps a distant cry? No, just the donkey again emitting its terror to the night. This was not how Dollen had expected to spend his night. Perhaps he should have been more specific in the terms of his agreement. It occurred to him now that he didn’t even have a contract.

He stepped back outside. “There now, Jasper. We’ll get ourselves out of this wind.” But the donkey couldn’t be settled. It seemed to want to bolt, and that would be bad with it still tethered to the cart.

The cart. He thought he heard a sound come from within it, something like the exhalation of great nostrils. They had seen a great cat earlier that day, during their climb. It made sense that cold wooden cart walls would occlude the heat signature from Dollen’s darkvision.

Poor Dollen. As his grip tightened on his brand new mace, glowing green eyes rose up from within the cart and looked down at him from behind a wide mouth of sharp, feline teeth. The donkey tried to run, the great cat leapt into the air.

Just Say Yes? GM Improv in Campaign Play vs. One-Shot Play

IMG_0033Some background before this post: Coulee Con is coming up, and I recklessly took the plunge and submitted two games to GM at the end of August. The first submission is Beowulf using the Yggdrasill system. The second is a Conan game called “Blood in Their Wakes” using the brand new 2d20 Modiphius system for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

I call these submissions “reckless” because the last time I submitted a game, “The Boon of Barrow-Isle” for the Yggdrasill system at Gamehole Con 2016, I belatedly realized that I was nowhere near prepared enough to run it. Therefore it was a mixture of disappointment and relief when absolutely no one signed up to play. Now, for Coulee Con, I feel prepared enough to run an Yggdrasill game, having run a campaign of it off and on now for almost a year. But Conan puts me in a situation similar to where I was last year with Yggdrasill. I am enamoured with the material and the system and really want to be an ambassador for it. Therefore I committed myself to it by submitting a game, and with my home group I’m fairly anxious to familiarize myself with the crunchy 2d20 system.

So I have to get to the “Beowulf” content in my Yggdrasill campaign to provide myself with plenty of time for the Conan rules set. And this haste and anxiety led to the thoughts that I have for this post. Last session I made good on my resolution to resort more to the runes as a game mechanic, but I did something else that, during post-game analysis, I regretted. If I could go back to our last session I would act differently in response to a player’s question. This falls under the topic of “Just say yes” during improv play.

Some time ago I listened to a recorded seminar from Paizo Con. One of the panelists was a noted GM and practitioner of improv theatre. He had two major pieces of advice for GMs: 1. Let the players shine and 2. Just say yes. Really, he was teaching the improv rule of “yes and.” An example of this:

GM: So the oaf has you down with your back on the table. His massive mitts are around your throat, slowly squeezing the life out of you. What do you do?

Player: I look around. Is there something nearby that I can grab and hit him with?

GM: Yes, in your periphery there appears to be a kettle. Made out of iron, maybe, and you sense heat emanating from it. Perhaps it is full of hot water?

I have presented the “Yes and” principle here at the microcosmic level, and this would be perfectly acceptable in one-shot convention play. Giving the player something to hit her antagonist with, and adding to the request the detail that it is full of hot — maybe even boiling — water isn’t going to drastically derail the track the GM has prepared for a satisfying arc that hopefully fits neatly into four hours of play (unless it’s going to, but that’s up to the judgment of the GM).

But the “Yes and” moment I encountered last session had greater implications. Instead of saying yes, I said no, and I know why I did at the time. After thinking about it, though, I wish I had said yes, and the answer is because of this: I said no because I was impatient to get to the microcosmic “one-shot” aspect of my campaign. But I should have recognized that I wasn’t playing a one-shot but a campaign. As such, I should have said yes.

I’m doing something potentially problematic with my regular group. I designed a Beowulf campaign for convention play, and I want to playtest it with my group in the midst of an ongoing campaign. As a result, some edges of Beowulf need to be rounded and trimmed and sharpened. There are many campaigns, I know, that operate this way. That’s why people buy published adventures, after all! But not everything is a full adventure path. The GM has to determine how to incorporate his “second-party” material into his wider campaign arc — and the campaign arc, I’m convinced, should be a collaborative experience between the GM and her players. This is why in general I have such difficulty with published adventure materials. Often I have to modify them to the point where it would be much more efficient for me to just build my own content from the ground up. Also, when running a game like Yggdrasill (in contradistinction to OSR games), my “sandbox” style of play is less a hexmap of “hidden encounters” that the PCs uncover or reveal as they explore… Okay, to follow the “sandbox” analogy further, it’s less of a series of sand castles that somehow are hidden from the players, but more of a wide expanse of unshaped sand that the players and I together will form into a story.

I am to be forgiven, and I know my players will forgive me, for being impatient to get to the actual “Beowulf” component of our Yggdrasill campaign so that I can test it and move on to the Conan game “Blood in Their Wakes”, but what I want to remind myself here is that my players are not first and foremost my playtesters but instead first and foremost my regular group of campaign players. This has been preamble enough to what exactly went down.

A few posts ago I introduced Yggdrasill to Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design. I generated a table of possible adventure hooks for if the PCs decided to go snooping about the shoreline during their trip to Hleidra. For whatever reason, I entirely ignored that table last session. Instead, I drew runes and improvised on the spot, which also is entirely acceptable. But drawing the runes perhaps would have been more effective if I had coupled them with my table. Nonetheless, I had plenty going on: despite the warnings of the PC Lydia, who is a Volva, the Sjaellings had looted the Barrow-Isle of cursed gold. As such, they were becoming paranoid Smeagol-ish people, thinking everyone else was after their shares of the loot. This quickly became a problem when the Sjaellings began to mingle in the fishing village of Klepp which was crowded with three longships of trading Geats! After some antics ensued, Lydia asked me if there were any Volva nearby. I consulted a rune and determined no, there were not, being unable to connect the rune directly to Lydia’s request.

But lets look at the table I devised and chose, in the moment, not to consult at all:

Beneath a field of clover is a massive bee hive, tended by Volva who brew from it mead that augments skills of prophecy and poetry. The local jarl wants to export it, and there is increasing tension between the jarl and the Volva.

And:

It is said that a Volva harvests the webs from a thousand spiders that visit her garden each night. From them she spins garments of supple but strong fiber.

Really, the rune I consulted should have determined which of these Volva were nearby, not whether there were Volva at all. During gameplay I was happy to skip this information and a possible time-eating excursion, thereby forestalling yet again the playtest. But the detour would have been richer overall for the campaign. And it would have rewarded a player for excellent gameplay. And it also potentially could have better prepared the Volva for what is going to be no easy encounter with Grendel!

So really my point here is that there are two types of games: campaigns and one-shots. There are two types of players: campaigners and dabblers. There therefore are two types of ways to say “Yes and”: yes, there is this possibility of an adventure that we will build right now out of the amorphous sand and yes, there is that particular item for sale right now in this fletcher’s hut. In campaign play, a GM’s first responsibility is for his campaigners, and she never should lose sight of that larger narrative structure in deference for the smaller. The campaign is an epic, the one-shot is a tightly-driven short story.

Reading the Runes: In Praise of RPG GM Mechanics

IMG_0031If you have been following me at all, more than once you have heard me whine about all the rules crunch in games like Pathfinder. You’ve heard me complain about how some rules and too many rules tend to allow minmaxing players to ruin games. But today I’m singing a different tune. Today I’m praising game mechanics, and I’m lauding the type of game mechanics that are made available to gamemasters.

What got me thinking about it was my last session of Yggdrasill during my return to the GM chair (my I had missed it!), and how something I had done had felt a little bit off. I need to foreground some of the following considerations by giving some background about just how much, for a Norse-themed game such as Yggdrasill, I have made Runes a mechanical aspect of my game. Well, let’s start with how Yggdrasill, rules as written, uses the runes. At character creation, players roll three times on three tables that each contain a set of eight runes. These results are recorded on the player’s character sheet and serve two functions. The first function is for roleplaying: the runes help the player determine a background story and personality for her character. The second function is for mechanics: during gameplay, if the player ever apprehends a moment wherein a particular rune attached to his character might serve as a benefit for that character, the rune translates into a mechanical bonus to a skill test or action; likewise, the GM might invoke a negative rune as a penalty to a character’s test. That’s about it for Yggdrasill’s rules as written. I expanded this aspect by introducing a bag of actual runestones to my table. When the Seidr-using character (a type of magic-user) “throws down the bones,” she draws three runes from the bag and interprets the results in any way she wants, and, depending on her skill test roll, this might influence game narrative. For my very first adventure using the system, the adventure called “The Boon of Barrow-Isle,” I decided to draw runes out of the bag, one by one, at significant “beats” during the story. If the rune Thurisaz ever was drawn, the undead giant in the cave complex would make his appearance. I decided to expand on this principle during later free-form sandbox campaign play. At the beginning of each session I drew three runes, and I “interpreted” these runes to aid me in determining what elements should be involved in that night’s session. Finally, I have incorporated the runes into random tables and even a mass combat rules system, which, for the curious, can be reviewed here.

Last session I had decided to skip the custom of drawing runes for narrative beats or elements, even as one of my players, by now habituated to the custom, offered me the bag. Perhaps that should have been a clue that I was neglecting a worthwhile ritual. Now, after the session, I think I should have been thinking about the runes more as I plunged my characters directly into the action.

Having been away from the campaign for so long, I started the adventure in media res. Thunder boomed. Lightning sizzled. The PCs were trying to rescue their jarl from being the victim of human sacrifice to a land spirit. They had to battle a necromancer who was being assisted by a fair number of hirdmen. The PCs chose, for the most part, to focus on the “Extras,” the “henchmen,” who were screening the necromancer from the PCs. This went on for a bit, and, in time, I decided that the villain should plunge his knife into the jarl’s breast.

I made my NPC make a Very Difficult Seidr test, and he succeeded. A major, recurring NPC, an ally of the PCs, was abruptly and spectacularly dead. In fact, this was the third major NPC to die during this fittingly brutal Norse campaign. But, unlike the other deaths I had impelled, something about how I had conducted this one felt “unfair,” not quite right. And it wasn’t until the calm reflection of postgame analysis that I understood why this was.

My action hadn’t been determined in any way mechanically. Now, there are many gamers in the OSR community who argue for a concept referred to as “GM trust” and that these kinds of arbitrary decisions are entirely fair. In many cases, I presume, they are. If PCs don’t manage to do something, then a consequence should result. And in this case my PCs hadn’t managed to get to the most threatening target in a suitable number of rounds. Nonetheless, it was me who had determined how many “thugs” the most dangerous NPC would have on hand to function as shields. And I hadn’t even concretely decided beforehand how many rounds this NPC would need to complete his dire ritual. My rulings all were quite arbitrary, and I wondered if I had unwittingly set up my PCs for failure, if I had in fact “railroaded” the situation.

In hindsight I realized that I had had a device — a very fitting device — for playing this scene out better: the Runes. As with the undead giant in a previous adventure, I should have begun drawing runes out of the bag and interpreting them in light of the ritual being performed and the PC actions. Yggdrasill considers many Runes indisputably negative in relation to the PCs, some positive, and others ambiguous. This would have seemed more fair, even more dynamic. Now I wish I had remembered it in time, and I’ll purpose to keep it in mind going forward.

One of the games I’m very much looking forward to running has a similar mechanic baked right into its core rules system. This is Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. In that game the GM has a resource called Doom, and these points can be used to complicate the narrative and buff NPCs. Now, the PCs also have their own resources — Momentum and Fate. Having recently run Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rpg, which is designed by the same person who crafted Modiphius’s 2d20 system, I experienced a bit of the interplay between these kinds of GM resources vs. PC resources. In the case of Star Wars, these resources were Light Side Points (for the PCs) and Dark Side Points (for the GM). As I’ve indicated above, I think I tend to enjoy these kinds of mechanics because it gives the GM some justification for bringing the hurt to the players. The dual resources are part of the game. They make the storytelling appear much less arbitrary or mean-spirited.

So next time I’m at the Yggdrasill table, I’ll be sure to be drawing more often from the rune bag. Skol!